The Yiddish verb for complaining, kvetch—literally to squeeze or to crush—has an onomatopoetic quality to my ear. All of those consonant sounds, squashed into a single syllable, surrounding the explosive grunt of the short E sound, to me, like the prolonged insistence of a grievance. And who has not occasionally been a kvetch, the noun—a relentless complainer?
Possibly the most noble and eloquent poetry-kvetch in the history of the art in English is Ben Jonson (1572-1637). A testy man (he was imprisoned for killing his opponent in a duel) mocked for his humble origins (he was raised in the household of his bricklayer stepfather), Jonson was also deeply learned and proficient in Greek and Latin. He wrote masques, plays, and poems, and I believe his poetry is unsurpassed for sheer musicality, the ability to arrange artfully the sounds of vowels and consonants, sentences and lines. There is a legend that in the period of the Battle of the Plays, Jonson's mannerisms were expertly imitated onstage by his rival William Shakespeare (for whom Jonson wrote a great elegy).
In his angry denunciations of the stupid audiences, ignorant critics, dumb fads, inept rivals, and general decay of poetry and taste in his time, Jonson sometimes hurled Classical allusions. Most of such references in his 1630s poem "An Ode to Himself," for instance, can be figured out from the context; like Shakespeare, Jonson knows how to set up context so that his audience can feel learnèd: The Aonian springs and Thespia must have to do with art. Clarius has a harp, so he must have to do with being lyrical. On the other hand, we probably need to know that Japhet was the father of Prometheus to understand Jonson's account of "Japhet's line" stealing new fire from "Sol's chariot."
In this poem, Jonson scolds himself for taking too seriously the worldly bumps and stupidities he'd like to ignore or rise above. The mode is kvetching by self-correction: Why, Jonson asks himself, does he care what jerks think? He urges himself to ignore them and to write—perhaps to write lyric poetry for readers rather than for "that strumpet the stage." (It is worth mentioning that the man killed by Jonson's dueling sword was an actor.) This is one of two "Odes to Himself" by Jonson; the other one begins, "Come leave the loathed Stage,/ And the more loathsome Age." Get to work writing, he tells himself, and don't worry about the "greedy Fry" who swim in schools and blindly gobble the bait of "worded balladry."
Exasperation of this kind is not a noble theme, but the poem's rhetorical energy and metrical grace make something gorgeous of Jonson's grumbling about the culture of his "dainty age" and his irritable spurring of himself. He touches on a significant, enduring theme. For anyone who has ever complained about the culture of his or her own age, Jonson's complaint may offer comfort in one way (you are not alone in your rage) and criticism in another (you should realize that times have always been bad—and get on with your best work). With his moral clarity and eloquence, Jonson rises above kvetching, turning complaint into insight and mere peevishness into something noble.
As a companion to Jonson's splendidly irritable fit, I'll add a memorial poem about Jonson by his younger friend and admirer Robert Herrick (1591-1674). Herrick kvetches, so to speak, in the third person rather than the first, praising Jonson by complaining about ignorant audiences and the plausible but third-rate artists those audiences admire. (The sock and buskin Herrick mentions are the ancient footgear for, respectively, tragedy and comedy.) Sentiments like Jonson's and Herrick's, denouncing the fools and scoundrels of our own age, appear pretty often on the Web and in other settings of contemporary life—but rarely in such beautifully turned verses.
"An Ode to Himself"
Where dost thou careless lie
##Buried in ease and sloth?
Knowledge that sleeps, doth die
And this security,
##It is the common moth
That eats on wits and arts, and that destroys them both.
Are all the Aonian springs
##Dried up? lies Thespia waste?
Doth Clarius' harp want strings,
That not a nymph now sings;
##Or droop they as disgraced,
To see their seats and bowers by chattering pies defaced?
If hence thy silence be,
##As 'tis too just a cause,
Let this thought quicken thee:
Minds that are great and free
##Should not on fortune pause;
'Tis crown enough to virtue still, her own applause.
What though the greedy fry
##Be taken with false baits
Of worded balladry,
And think it poesy?
##They die with their conceits,
And only piteous scorn upon their folly waits.
Then take in hand thy lyre;
##Strike in thy proper strain;
With Japhet's line aspire
Sol's chariot, for new fire
##To give the world again:
Who aided him, will thee, the issue of Jove's brain.
And, since our dainty age
##Cannot endure reproof,
Make not thyself a page
To that strumpet the stage;
##But sing high and aloof,
Safe from the wolf's black jaw, and the dull ass's hoof.
"Upon M. Ben Jonson, Epig."
After the rare arch-poet, Jonson, died,
The sock grew loathsome, and the buskin's pride,
Together with the stage's glory, stood
Each like a poor and pitied widowhood.
The cirque profan'd was, and all postures rack'd;
For men did strut, and stride, and stare, not act.
Then temper flew from words, and men did squeak,
Look red, and blow, and bluster, but not speak;
No holy rage or frantic fires did stir
Or flash about the spacious theater.
No clap of hands, or shout, or praises proof
Did crack the play‑house sides, or cleave her roof.
Artless the scene was, and that monstrous sin
Of deep and arrant ignorance came in:
Such ignorance as theirs was who once hiss'd
At thy unequall'd play, the Alchemist;
Oh, fie upon 'em! Lastly, too, all wit
In utter darkness did, and still will sit,
Sleeping the luckless age out, till that she
Her resurrection has again with thee.
Slate Poetry Editor Robert Pinsky will be participating in the Poems "Fray" this week. Post your questions and comments on "An Ode To Himself" and "Upon M. Ben Jonson, Epig." and he'll respond and participate. (In the interest of keeping the discussion as rich as possible, please read existing comments before posting your own.) You can also browse "Fray" discussions of previous classic poems.
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